Fate/stay night’s complete three-part narrative opens with the simply named Fate.
In the original 2004 release of the game, this 30+ hour path was a prerequisite to unlocking the other routes of the game Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel, though the 2012 Réalta Nua release on PC split the three routes into separate executable files, allowing them to be played independently, albeit with some shared save data.
It’s still best to play them in the order they were originally intended, however, since Fate, as we’ll explore today, carries the important role of allowing us to understand the context in which the other narratives unfold.
Boot up Fate/stay night for the first time, and the first thing you’ll see — before any title screens, menus, credit sequences or opening videos — is a prologue from the perspective of one of the game’s three main heroines, Rin Tohsaka. In it, we’re introduced to the fact that the world of Fate is not exactly normal; it’s a world where magic is real, and those who wield it will apparently stop at nothing to obtain the unlimited power offered by the apparently not at all mythological Holy Grail.
“We’re basically heretics who hide ourselves from the world,” explains Rin to the player. “We’re prohibited from standing out and even if we weren’t, we would rather be at home studying magic. As we believe, control and learn things that are immeasurable, our existence is incompatible with the modern world, because it’s kind of meaningless. Going to a normal school and becoming a normal adult will bring you far more happiness than studying magic.”
Rin, we discover, is apparently attempting to juggle her two lives, as shortly after explaining all this, we see her going to school and having what appears to be a rather normal, mundane morning — albeit with her existing as the forever untouchable “idol” of the school, partly through her own desire to “hide herself from the world”, and partly just through her very nature.
“It’s my vanity… no, my conviction, that I must be number one both academically and physically,” says Rin. “If I am to be a student, I want to be the best, and it’s unthinkable for me to dishonour the Tohsaka name. So that’s why I’m a perfect student, flawless in all aspects.”
Rin’s desire to live up to the apparently proud name of the Tohsaka family extends outside of the school grounds, too. As she leaves, we discover that Rin the student ceases to exist, and she becomes Rin the magus. While it’s easy to sense she has some uneasiness about her place in the world, she has apparently learned to cope pretty well, having lived alone following the death of her father ten years ago. And, it appears, a key part of living up to that proud name is participating in what is called the Holy Grail War, a tradition passed down for hundreds of years in which magi called Masters summon supernatural Servants to battle one another in an attempt to obtain the legendary artifact.
Part of Rin’s role in this opening sequence from a metatextual perspective is to explain the core concepts of the narrative from the perspective of an expert. In effect, her descriptions and behaviour in these opening sequences fulfill the function of a “tutorial” in a more mechanics-focused game, only here we’re not learning how to play something; we’re learning how to parse and understand the things we see going on before us.
Or so it initially seems, at least; Rin, claiming confidently to the reader that she is going to summon “Saber”, who is apparently “the strongest Servant”, proceeds to perform an elaborate ritual that she has apparently taken a great deal of time to learn and practice, only to discover that she messed something up somewhere, failed to summon Saber and instead called “Archer”, a Servant who can’t recall his own identity, and destroyed her living room in the process.
Writer Kinoku Nasu describes the overall theme of Fate/stay night as “conquering oneself”, with the Fate route specifically focusing on the concept of “oneself as an ideal”. Right from the outset, we see this concept explored through Rin’s prologue: Rin clearly wants to believe that she is an “ideal”, but her botched summoning ritual only goes to prove that she is apparently just as fallible as everyone else; a powerful thing to discover after the events up until this point have very much positioned her as the perfect student, the perfect young woman and the perfect magus.
Despite her inherent self-confidence, Rin does at least accept that there are things greater than she is — specifically, the Servants who are summoned by the Masters of the Holy Grail War.
“I’ll make it clear,” she explains. “Servants are heroes from the past. Myth, legend, fable, history… fiction or not, the ‘superhuman beings’ who gained concrete existence in folklore are what we call heroes. A hero that becomes eternal in people’s minds is no longer human after their death, and is promoted to another form of existence. Humans who bring about miracles, save people and achieve great deeds are called heroes even after their death. The ultimate ideal humans have created, the greatest human people have created. These are the heroes, the heroic spirits.”
The Servants, embodiments of these heroic spirits, are literal personifications of “ideals”. Whether they’re historical figures who actually existed or simply characters from popular myths and legends, these figures are respected — some might say even worshiped — by all of humanity, not just the secretive world of the magi, and that is where much of their power comes from.
After three days of the Holy Grail War, we finally leave Rin’s perspective behind and join Fate’s true protagonist, Shirou Emiya. We learn immediately that he is someone who has always been very conscious of “ideals” thanks to his past — being one of the only survivors of an enormous fire some ten years past (which Rin had previously revealed to be as a result of the last Holy Grail War’s final battle) had caused him to put his saviour (and subsequent adoptive father) Kiritsugu Emiya onto something of a pedestal in his mind, revering him as a “superhero” and wanting nothing more than to be able to succeed him.
As fate would have it, Kiritsugu was a magus — though he claimed himself to be a “sorcerer” when he first addressed Shirou directly. This is somewhat significant, because in the world of Fate, the concept of “magic” and “sorcery” are two distinct things; sorcery is power on a level so great that there are supposedly only five people in the world who can perform it, so for Kiritsugu to claim he is one of them means either that he really is one of them, that he is excessively confident in his own abilities as a magus, or that he is simply a liar. Regardless of the truth, young Shirou believed him unquestioningly, and thus began his obsessive adulation.
Although not born into a magical family like Rin was, Shirou nonetheless decided to learn magic under the tutelage of his adoptive father. He proved himself to have little talent and ability in this regard, but did at least start to get the hang of what he calls “strengthening” magic; the ability to fundamentally alter the structure of something so that it is much tougher than it needs to be. As part of this process, he also learned how to “read” the structure of things using his limited magical ability, which we see him make practical use of at school by repairing things for his friend on the student council.
“To learn magic is to stray away from common sense,” explained Kiritsugu to his young pupil. “You die when you die, and you kill when you must. Our essence is not in life but in death. Magic is only a way to destroy yourself.”
“I guess Kiritsugu didn’t want me to become a magus,” recalls Shirou. “I don’t think about that. I don’t admire a magus. I admire Kiritsugu. If I can become like Kiritsugu and be there for someone like on that red day, that will be…” He trails off.
“It’s not like I can just randomly do good deeds,” he muses. “I think being a superhero is different from just helping others. I know that, but the question is, how can I become one? The difference between the two is the thing I’ve failed to understand for the past five years.”
While Shirou recognises this fundamental misunderstanding, it doesn’t stop him from always wanting to help others — a character trait that, at times, draws criticism from those close to him, who believe he should, at least sometimes, value himself and his own life above the needs of others, particularly when those “others” are complete strangers.
“I don’t want help that has a limited capacity,” Shirou explains following a recent murder in the community that causes him to feel somewhat powerless, much as he did in the fire of ten years ago. “You have to help, no matter how impossible it is. I can’t stand to have strangers dying around me like back then…”
It’s Shirou’s desire that ultimately causes him to get involved in the Holy Grail War, though it’s a rather more mundane form of help than that which a “superhero” would typically offer. Having stayed late at school to assist with some work that needed doing, he accidentally stumbles across a battle between Rin’s Servant Archer and his assailant Lancer. He finds the spectacle horrifying, but compelling.
“They are not human. They are probably just things that look like humans,” he explains. “I can tell not because I’m learning magic. Anyone would realise they’re not human. After all, humans can’t move like that. So they are something no-one should associate with.”
Accidentally revealing his presence causes him to be chased down by Lancer, who promptly skewers him through the heart in the school corridors, though Rin manages to get to him in time to save him with a considerable amount of magical energy she has stored in a pendant. Even after this horrible incident, Shirou still finds himself almost running on autopilot.
“Why do I still think I have to clean up, when I’ve just met something totally outrageous and been killed instantly?” he asks himself. “Am I an idiot?”
This isn’t the end of Shirou’s particularly bad night, as after escaping death once, he once again finds himself on the receiving end of Lancer’s spear later in the evening.
“This is bullshit,” he says as he feels his life slipping away once again. “I can’t accept this. I can’t just die here meaninglessly. I was saved. I was saved, so I can’t die so easily. I have to live and fulfill my obligations. If I die, I can’t do that.” It’s pretty telling that even on the verge of death, Shirou is more concerned about his “obligations” than any more selfish regrets or wishes he might have.
And it’s during this confrontation that Shirou manages to succeed where Rin failed, summoning the legendary Saber apparently by accident.
The elegant, beautiful Saber immediately captivates Shirou, even though he doesn’t immediately understand what has happened or why — and he’s even more surprised to discover Rin lurking outside his house apparently fairly unperturbed by what has unfolded. She and Saber then proceed to fill him in on exactly what he has found himself involved with.
Shirou’s idealism and his desire to help everyone causes him to be resistant to the very idea of the Holy Grail War, as he believes himself to be above the desire for the wishes that the Holy Grail supposedly grants, and also deeply uncomfortable with the idea of killing the other Masters in order to win this supernatural battle royale. Both Rin and Saber appear committed to the cause, however, though Shirou remains uneasy, especially at the idea of having to battle Rin, whom he has seemingly now befriended in something of an uneasy alliance.
But a premonition of what is to come unfolds when Rin takes Shirou and Saber to see a priest called Kirei Kotomine, supposed overseer of this Holy Grail War and a man who appears to know a lot more than he “should” about the whole situation.
“Rejoice, boy,” he says ominously as their meeting draws to a close. “Your wish will finally come true. Your wish will not come true unless there is a clear evil. Even if it is not something you approve of, a superhero requires a villain to defeat.”
Shirou is shaken by the realisation that, in his words, “the desire to protect something is, at the same time, none other than the wish for something to violate it”.
But he stands firm to his belief of what “protecting something” really is, as on the way home from Kotomine’s church, the trio find themselves under attack from another Servant, a fearsome giant known as Berserker. Saber is overwhelmed by this foe’s sheer might, so, once again caring nothing for his own life and instead putting others before himself, Shirou throws himself into the fray in an attempt to protect this young woman that has so immediately captivated him — even though, rationally speaking, as a Servant, she is infinitely better equipped to deal with a confrontation like this than he is.
Nevertheless, Shirou attempts to shield the wounded Saber against Berserker’s frighteningly powerful strikes, and finds himself severely injured in the process… though the next morning when he awakens, he’s surprised to discover himself relatively unscathed. Rin initially attributes this to his connection with Saber and an assumption that some of her magical power is flowing into him in an odd reversal of the usual Master-Servant relationship, but the truth later reveals itself to be something much more strange — and something which forms a much stronger bond between Shirou and Saber than any of them could have initially predicted.
Rin, having learned to recognise her own limitations as a result of the hard knocks she has taken since her initial botched summoning ritual and the start of the Holy Grail War proper, decides to cooperate with Shirou and Saber, at least until they are able to successfully deal with the terrifying Berserker. Although her doing this is, in its own way, an admission of weakness, she makes her request assertively and working on the assumption that she will not be rejected; she still, after all, has her own pride to consider.
Shirou and Saber’s relationship gets off to a somewhat awkward start. Shirou isn’t sure how to behave around her, and he feels like his own desire for no-one to get hurt in this Holy Grail War is somewhat at odds with her apparently earnest and sincere wish to obtain the Holy Grail for her own purposes. Saber also reveals that, unlike a typical Master-Servant relationship, in which the Servant is able to continually draw magical energy to sustain herself from her Master, she is receiving nothing from Shirou, meaning that her power is a lot more finite than it might be with a more talented or powerful Master.
Shirou is often down on himself about his own shortcomings as a Master and a magus, particularly once the Holy Grail War gets underway and his limitations become particularly apparent. But Saber never seems to mind too much; she expresses a desire for Shirou to “get stronger”, but this is primarily out of a wish for him to stay safe rather than to be a better Master for her.
It transpires that both Saber and Shirou are a lot more similar to one another than either of them would probably care to admit during the early stages of their relationship, despite their apparently opposing views on the matter of joining the battle for the Holy Grail. Both of them are stubborn to a fault and will dig in their heels when there is something they truly believe in.
There’s something deeper, too, which Rin touches on in a conversation at home.
“The Master influences which heroic spirit is summoned as the Servant,” she explains. “The Master and the Servant end up being similar people. So if the Master is a noble person, a heroic spirit similar to them will be summoned. And if a person with a huge scar in their mind summons a heroic spirit, a heroic spirit with a scar in their mind appears as well. A Master with a crooked mind sometimes summons vengeful ghosts almost like heroic spirits instead of a hero.”
Rin’s discussion actually relates to Shirou’s estranged friend Shinji, who, it turns out, has also become a Master since the start of the Holy Grail War. It’s clear throughout Fate that Shinji is not a nice person, with strong implications that he is abusing his sister Sakura — a close friend of Shirou’s — though these matters are not explored in detail until the Heaven’s Feel route. Regardless of the specifics, though, it’s clear that Shinji has a degree of a “crooked mind” about him, which would probably go some distance to explaining why Shirou feels such a chill when he meets Shinji’s Servant Rider for the first time.
But Rin’s explanation also inadvertently describes the relationship between Shirou and Saber perfectly. Both clearly have an air of “nobility” about them — not in the sense of being wealthy aristocrats, but in the sense of having a desire to perform noble deeds. Saber, of course, is much better equipped to actually carry out said noble deeds thanks to her inherent abilities, but in Shirou’s case, the intentions are certainly there.
And they’re not always directed effectively. Shirou initially wishes for Saber not to fight at all, primarily so he never has to see her injured as she was in the battle with Berserker ever again. This is a request that Saber finds it impossible to comply with, though Shirou resists making use of the “Command Spell” he obtained when he became a Master to force her to obey his wishes.
He does, however, make it clear that he wants to fight alongside her, so the pair begin daily physical training sessions, while Rin attempts to train his shaky understanding of magic.
Saber and Shirou’s daily training becomes an opportunity for the two of them to come to understand one another, not just through sparring with one another, but also through conversation during downtime. It’s during one of these sessions that Shirou asks about Saber’s reason for fighting — the reason she desires the Holy Grail.
“I seek the Holy Grail to fulfill an obligation,” she admits. “I want the power of the Holy Grail to accomplish a duty I could not accomplish during my lifetime.”
Shirou is relieved to hear that Saber’s wish is not a selfish, vulgar one, but he still believes that there is “something wrong with that wish of hers”. This uneasiness stays with him, though it’s a while before he realises that his discomfort with Saber’s apparently rather selfless wish is down to the fact that he recognises something of himself in her words — or rather, something of how other people regard him, anyway. While he claims to have no interest in pursuing the Holy Grail to fulfill his own wish, it’s fair to say, given what we know of Shirou by this point, that he would make use of its power to do something beneficial for others rather than himself.
Even Rin’s Servant Archer is aware of this, and dishes out some tough love of his own one evening when Shirou runs into him in the garden.
“Your methods will not allow you to reverse a sad event or a miserable death,” says Archer. “Those are the limits. A superhero is only someone that tidies up events that have already taken place. You will definitely not be able to save the people you want to save the most. An ideal is only an ideal, after all. As long as you embrace that ideal, the friction with reality will continue to increase. The path that you are about to take is of that sort. So you will someday face reality and will have to pay the price for your compromises.”
Archer’s words cut deep because Shirou, on some level, knows them to be true. But he still finds himself wanting to resist them, not wanting to admit that the path he is walking might be the wrong one.
It takes another near-death experience for Shirou to change his ways a bit, however. Summoned to school by Shinji by a request to “talk”, Shirou finds himself cornered by Shinji’s magical boundary field which is sucking the life out of the students at school, and a brutal, relentless attack by Rider. Having wished to prove that he could stand up for himself and was able to protect Saber from having to fight, he had attended the meeting by himself, but prior to being completely obliterated, he manages to use a Command Spell to summon Saber to his side.
“You accepted a call from the enemy without me, you tried to fight by yourself, and you did not take care of your body!” Saber exclaims to him later as the pair review what transpired. “Do you understand that all of those actions were foolish actions that would have been fatal? No, you really were almost dead. What enjoyment are you getting out of causing me so much trouble?”
Shirou is humbled by her words.
“I made her feel so uneasy that even the expressionless Saber made such a face,” he admits to himself. “I wasn’t relying on Saber. But still, she accepted me as the person to fight with. I was the stupid one. I didn’t notice such pure trust. And I could not even give her the simple trust of letting her fight.”
From hereon, Shirou attempts to cooperate more fully with Saber, beginning with an attempt to track down Shinji and Rider — an encounter that culminates with Saber revealing her true identity when she speaks the true name of her Noble Phantasm, Excalibur.
In Fate lore, a Noble Phantasm is the weapon or weapons that were associated with a heroic spirit when they were alive, so Saber’s use of Excalibur leaves little doubt as to who she really is — though it does, of course, raise a few questions, since in the established legends, the wielder of Excalibur was none other than King Arthur, a figure historically believed to be, well, a king… a male.
Now aware of Saber’s true identity, Shirou’s connection with her causes him to start having dreams in which he witnesses her past. During these dreams, he witnesses a young woman who, as in the legends, draws the sword from the stone to prove herself worthy to be the king of England, and in the process completely cast aside her humanity and worldly desires in the name of doing everything she can for her country.
Here is the crux of how Shirou and Saber are similar: they both set aside their own selves in the name of doing what they believe to be the right thing, to help others. In Shirou’s case, it’s his desire to be a “superhero”; to follow in what he believes to be Kiritsugu’s footsteps, and to save people from terrible fates. In Saber’s case, meanwhile, everything she did was in service to her country; she cast aside the young girl Arturia in favour of doing what was right as “the king”.
Shirou doesn’t have much time to reflect on this, however, as he finds himself captured by Berserker’s master Illya, and taken to her mansion hidden deep in the woods, far away from town. Saber, Rin and Archer manage to rescue him, but it becomes clear that Saber’s use of her Noble Phantasm in the previous battle against Rider drained a great deal of her magical energy — and, since her reserves are finite and she is unable to replenish herself naturally from the connection between her and Shirou, she is at risk of disappearing from the world and leaving Shirou alone.
Rin, thankfully, has a possible solution, though it first requires them to escape from Illya and Berserker — a matter which Archer gladly assists with, giving up his own life in the process. Said solution requires Shirou to make love to Saber, much to his surprise.
“Unison from sex is standard procedure,” explains Rin rather clinically. “The semen of a magus is a cluster of magical energy. Don’t you know that poor magi sell their semen to the Association?”
Shirou is torn at the prospect.
“I can still feel her in my hands,” he muses, remembering carrying her in their frantic flight from Illya’s mansion. “Her warm body, her sweating skin and her light weight… all of it was in my hands until a moment ago. If I remember that, I’m sure I’ll go after her body not because I want to save her, but just because I want her.”
Here Shirou is getting caught up in his own ideals again. He wants to believe that Saber is some sort of perfect, unattainable ideal — and the idea of being able to “have” her in this most intimate of ways makes him hesitate, because that will bring his perception of her crashing down in all sorts of ways.
Rin is having none of this, however, and initiates the whole encounter by kissing Shirou and doing her best to get Saber in the mood… an incident which causes her to realise a few things about herself that she clearly had not had the opportunity to explore before. (There had, however, been a few previous hints in this regard, particularly during a conversation between Rin and Saber some days earlier, in which Rin confessed that she found Saber beautiful to such a degree that she felt less confident in her own attractiveness — a conversation which Shirou overheard, even though Rin was trying to be discreet.)
Regardless of her preferences, Rin’s ministrations prove to be effective on both Saber and Shirou, and the whole encounter is ultimately successful for its intended purpose — though it leaves an indelible mark on Shirou’s mind. Notably, however, any time Shirou recalls the incident throughout the rest of the narrative, he never makes any mention of Rin’s involvement; his enduring memories of what happened stem purely from his feelings for Saber.
Renewed with strength, though with no time to mourn for Archer, Shirou, Saber and Rin set out to defeat Berserker once and for all, and it’s during the subsequent battle that Shirou reveals his true strength — as well as the meaning behind some mysterious words that Archer had left him with some days previously, words which Shirou immediately recognised as “something that should never be forgotten”.
“If it is an opponent you cannot match in real life, beat it in your imagination,” Archer said. “If you cannot beat it yourself, imagine something that you could beat it with. After all, that is the only thing you can do.”
And so it is that Shirou discovers his true talent for magic — not strengthening magic, as he had originally assumed, but projection magic, a powerful and dangerous art that puts the caster at great risk every time it is used. By projecting a recreation of Caliburn, the sword that Saber drew from the stone to become King Arthur, Shirou is able to turn the tide of battle in favour of himself and his allies, with only his remarkable capacity for self-healing preventing him from completely burning out his entire nervous system and brain with the exertion.
Having bought themselves some respite with the defeat of Berserker and the capture of Illya — Shirou’s nature, of course, meant that he earnestly believed it would be better to “save” her than either kill her or leave her to the mercy of the remaining Masters — the time had come for Saber to reveal a little more about her intentions.
“Humans make a contract with the world to become a hero, receive powers beyond human, and pay for it with life after death,” explains Saber, referring to the phenomenon of heroic spirits. “But I did not need the help of the world to become a hero. Fortunately, King Arthur needed no support to become a hero. [But] I needed the Holy Grail in my final moments. I could not stand not having the Holy Grail. A wish appeared that I needed to have granted. That is why I made the contract of the heroic spirits. That if I could obtain the Holy Grail, I would wield my sword as a heroic spirit after my death.”
Saber’s final moments saw her defeated after an otherwise successful battle, but with a Britain rapidly descending into chaos that she felt powerless to prevent. The Holy Grail, she felt, might have given her the opportunity to prevent that chaos — perhaps thorough something as drastic as going right back and changing the very course of history.
Here we’re back to ideals again. Saber managed to become an “ideal” in her own time through her own skills and abilities, but once she met her end, she felt she could have done better; that she could have been more “ideal”. Or, more accurately, she felt like the true ideal would have been for someone more fitting to have drawn the sword from the stone and led the country better in her place.
Shirou is once again dissatisfied with this. “If you have a wish, don’t go to the past and redo everything,” he says. “If you want to change yourself, don’t change the past, but change who you are now!”
Saber is unyielding in her values, however, and requests that Shirou stop bringing the matter up. She clearly has no intention of using the Holy Grail for herself, and this frustrates Shirou, even as he fails to see the irony in his annoyance at Saber’s attitude.
“I do not even need to explain,” says Saber after Shirou makes an attempt to convince her of the value of seeking a second life alongside him. “Servants exist to fight. A day like today is merely denying my own existence. I obeyed since you decided to take a rest, but I believe resting should not be necessary from now on. I have no choices besides fighting. I only exist to obtain the Holy Grail. I submitted my body to fulfill my promise as king. I cannot allow any other use for myself.”
Shirou attempts to object, but Saber remains staunch, rejecting him utterly.
“Think about myself? That goes for you as well. You do not consider your life. You say I am mistaken, but you are even more mistaken. Only corpses consider others more important than themselves. How can a fool who does not even know the value of his own life address me so?”
Shirou flees their argument, furious with himself, furious at Saber for her unrelenting, unyielding nature, and furious that he was unable to do anything to “save” her. Hours later, he returns to the same spot to find that she has not moved; unable to do anything for herself based on her own desires, she remained all but rooted to the spot, staring out over the river.
“She’s strong, yet so weak,” Shirou observes. “Her gallant figure must be proof that she could live without anybody’s help. But she is also so weak that my hand might go through her if I reach out. She can’t do it alone, but she defends her pride until the end.”
It’s at this point that Shirou finally realises the similarities between the two of them, “watching stars that cannot be reached”, as he puts it. Unable to reach out for the things they themselves wanted, they instead threw themselves into a sense of “obligation” and “duty” rather than living life for themselves. It becomes a lonely existence; Shirou’s continued reliving of Saber’s past through his dreams reveals a young king forever obliged to deny her true self and even her gender; a young king that is completely isolated from other people despite caring deeply for her country as a whole; a young king who is forever surrounded by people, but all alone.
It’s a situation that Shirou has been in on a number of occasions, most notably during the fire of ten years ago, when despite the fact there were people all around him, he was the only one who was saved, leaving him with a never-ending feeling of guilt and a desire to repay the debt he felt he owed.
The true connection between Saber and Shirou is finally revealed when the pair confront Gilgamesh, an Archer-class Servant who has apparently been able to survive in the world since the previous Holy Grail War ten years ago. Gilgamesh’s power is on a whole other level thanks to his unprecedented number of Noble Phantasms — a reflection of the popular legend of him being a collector of treasures — and his overwhelming force leaves both Shirou and Saber severely battered and bloodied, all but defeated.
Shirou, completely refusing to give up even as his body has been torn apart by Gilgamesh, manages to unleash his projection magic once again, and Saber manages to find the strength to help him wield the weapon he creates to drive off Gilgamesh.
“I finally understand,” says Saber, hugging the bloodied Shirou after the battle is over. “It is only natural for your body to heal. I finally understand. You were my sheath, Shirou.”
Here, Saber is referring to the aspect of the Arthurean legend where it was Avalon, the sheath of Excalibur, that protected the king from harm — and that her eventual defeat came about at least partly as a result of the loss of that sheath. It is mentioned much earlier in the narrative that Saber’s previous summoning used an Arthurean artifact excavated from Cornwall as a catalyst, and it transpires not only that the artifact was Avalon itself, but that Saber’s former Master was none other than Shirou’s adoptive father Kiritsugu… and that Kiritsugu magically sealed the sheath inside Shirou’s body, which is the source of his mysterious healing abilities.
Saber and Shirou share a second intimate night together — without Rin this time — ostensibly to allow Saber to recover her magical energy after her battle with Gilgamesh and prior to their final showdown, but it’s clear that Saber is, by now, doing this for a genuine connection with Shirou, despite her protestations afterwards, and despite her apparent continued unwillingness to give up her “obligations” for the sake of potentially being able to lead a peaceful life alongside Shirou.
But, by now, having come to know and love Saber, Shirou has finally understood and accepted who she is and what she believes in.
“She was born as a king and lived as a king,” he says. “That will not change no matter what. From the time she swore to carry the sword, the girl became a king and nothing else. That is her pride. She ran through the battles so that in her final moments, she would be able to believe her path was the right one. The dreams of the girl Arturia. The mind that chose to be the king over her own life. To fight. Even after she learned it would be unrewarded, she still clasped the sword and defended the oath of the king. For many years. I cannot do anything to dishonour the pride that she has held until the time of her death.”
After the final battle — during which it becomes extremely apparent that the truth of the “Holy Grail” is eminently unsuitable for granting any sane person’s wish, leading to Shirou expending his last Command Spell on ordering Saber to destroy it, just as Kiritsugu had done ten years previously — Saber’s last words to Shirou are a simple “I love you”… and then she disappears forever.
“There is no regret, and I don’t have anything I forgot to tell her,” Shirou muses some two months after the end of the war. “That parting contained everything. What I wanted to do. What she dreamed of. It was a competition of our determination, and maybe I should have taken her hand and granted her dream.”
“I’ll recall her for the rest of my life,” he explains to Rin on the way to school one spring morning. “My memory will fade away someday, and I will forget about her voice and her gestures. But still — I’ll remember forever that this thing occurred, and that I loved Saber.”
The final moments of Fate see Saber — King Arthur — returned to her own time, moments before her death, witnessed only by the knight Bedivere. But this time it is unfolding differently to how it was before; there is no regret in her end, no desire to use the Holy Grail to do things over, to try again, to let someone else make her mistakes for her.
“The knight keeps watching over her figure,” read the last lines of the narration. “The king that he wished for. A lonely king that was seen off by just one knight. But — her face is what he wished for. A peaceful sleep. In her last moments, the king has obtained peace that she has never been able to obtain.”
A fitting end for the King of Knights; a death which is not sad, but which simply marks the end of a long and painful journey in relentless pursuit of a shining ideal.
More about Fate/stay night
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